The National Security Agency has made repeated attempts to develop attacks against people using Tor, a popular tool designed to protect online anonymity, despite the fact the software is primarily funded and promoted by the US government itself.
Top-secret NSA documents, disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, reveal that the agency's current successes against Tor rely on identifying users and then attacking vulnerable software on their computers. One technique developed by the agency targeted the Firefox web browser used with Tor, giving the agency full control over targets' computers, including access to files, all keystrokes and all online activity.
But the documents suggest that the fundamental security of the Tor service remains intact. One top-secret presentation, titled 'Tor Stinks', states: "We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time." It continues: "With manual analysis we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users," and says the agency has had "no success de-anonymizing a user in response" to a specific request.
Another top-secret presentation calls Tor "the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity".
Tor – which stands for The Onion Router – is an open-source public project that bounces its users' internet traffic through several other computers, which it calls "relays" or "nodes", to keep it anonymous and avoid online censorship tools.
It is relied upon by journalists, activists and campaigners in the US and Europe as well as in China, Iran and Syria, to maintain the privacy of their communications and avoid reprisals from government. To this end, it receives around 60% of its funding from the US government, primarily the State Department and the Department of Defense – which houses the NSA.
Despite Tor's importance to dissidents and human rights organizations, however, the NSA and its UK counterpart GCHQ have devoted considerable efforts to attacking the service, which law enforcement agencies say is also used by people engaged in terrorism, the trade of child abuse images, and online drug dealing.
While it seems that the NSA has not compromised the core security of the Tor software or network, the documents detail proof-of-concept attacks, including several relying on the large-scale online surveillance systems maintained by the NSA and GCHQ through internet cable taps.
One such technique is based on trying to spot patterns in the signals entering and leaving the Tor network, to try to de-anonymise its users. The effort was based on a long-discussed theoretical weakness of the network: that if one agency controlled a large number of the "exits" from the Tor network, they could identify a large amount of the traffic passing through it.
The proof-of-concept attack demonstrated in the documents would rely on the NSA's cable-tapping operation, and the agency secretly operating computers, or 'nodes', in the Tor system. However, one presentation stated that the success of this technique was "negligible" because the NSA has "access to very few nodes" and that it is "difficult to combine meaningfully with passive Sigint".
While the documents confirm the NSA does indeed operate and collect traffic from some nodes in the Tor network, they contain no detail as to how many, and there are no indications that the proposed de-anonymization technique was ever implemented.
Other efforts mounted by the agencies include attempting to direct traffic toward NSA-operated servers, or attacking other software used by Tor users. One presentation, titled 'Tor: Overview of Existing Techniques', also refers to making efforts to "shape", or influence, the future development of Tor, in conjunction with GCHQ.
Another effort involves measuring the timings of messages going in and out of the network to try to identify users. A third attempts to degrade or disrupt the Tor service, forcing users to abandon the anonymity protection.
Such efforts to target or undermine Tor are likely to raise legal and policy concerns for the intelligence agencies.
Foremost among those concerns is whether the NSA has acted, deliberately or inadvertently, against internet users in the US when attacking Tor. One of the functions of the anonymity service is to hide the country of all of its users, meaning any attack could be hitting members of Tor's substantial US user base.
Several attacks result in implanting malicious code on the computer of Tor users who visit particular websites. The agencies say they are targeting terrorists or organized criminals visiting particular discussion boards, but these attacks could also hit journalists, researchers, or those who accidentally stumble upon a targeted site.
The efforts could also raise concerns in the State Department and other US government agencies that provide funding to increase Tor's security – as part of the Obama administration's internet freedom agenda to help citizens of repressive regimes – circumvent online restrictions.
Material published online for a discussion event held by the State Department, for example, described the importance of tools such as Tor.
"[T]he technologies of internet repression, monitoring and control continue to advance and spread as the tools that oppressive governments use to restrict internet access and to track citizen online activities grow more sophisticated. Sophisticated, secure, and scalable technologies are needed to continue to advance internet freedom."
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency whose mission is to "inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy" through networks such as Voice of America, also supported Tor's development until October 2012 to ensure that people in countries such as Iran and China could access BBG content. Tor continues to receive federal funds through Radio Free Asia, which is funded by a federal grant from BBG.
The governments of both these countries have attempted to curtail Tor's use: China has tried on multiple occasions to block Tor entirely, while one of the motives behind Iranian efforts to create a "national internet" entirely under government control was to prevent circumvention of those controls.
The NSA's own documents acknowledge the service's wide use in countries where the internet is routinely surveilled or censored. One presentation notes that among uses of Tor for "general privacy" and "non-attribution", it can be used for "circumvention of nation state internet policies" – and is used by "dissidents" in "Iran, China, etc".
Yet GCHQ documents show a disparaging attitude towards Tor users. One presentation acknowledges Tor was "created by the US government" and is "now maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)", a US freedom of expression group. In reality, Tor is maintained by an independent foundation, though has in the past received funding from the EFF.
The presentation continues by noting that "EFF will tell you there are many pseudo-legitimate uses for Tor", but says "we're interested as bad people use Tor". Another presentation remarks: "Very naughty people use Tor".
The technique developed by the NSA to attack Tor users through vulnerable software on their computers has the codename Egotistical Giraffe, the documents show. It involves exploiting the Tor browser bundle, a collection of programs, designed to make it easy for people to install and use the software. Among these is a version of the Firefox web browser.
The trick, detailed in a top-secret presentation titled 'Peeling back the layers of Tor with Egotistical Giraffe', identified website visitors who were using the protective software and only executed its attack – which took advantage of vulnerabilities in an older version of Firefox – against those people. Under this approach, the NSA does not attack the Tor system directly. Rather, targets are identified as Tor users and then the NSA attacks their browsers.
According to the documents provided by Snowden, the particular vulnerabilities used in this type of attack were inadvertently fixed by Mozilla Corporation in Firefox 17, released in November 2012 – a fix the NSA had not circumvented by January 2013 when the documents were written.
The older exploits would, however, still be usable against many Tor users who had not kept their software up to date.
A similar but less complex exploit against the Tor network was revealed by security researchers in July this year. Details of the exploit, including its purpose and which servers it passed on victims' details to, led to speculation it had been built by the FBI or another US agency.
At the time, the FBI refused to comment on whether it was behind the attack, but subsequently admitted in a hearing in an Irish court that it had operated the malware to target an alleged host of images of child abuse – though the attack did also hit numerous unconnected services on the Tor network.
Roger Dingledine, the president of the Tor project, said the NSA's efforts serve as a reminder that using Tor on its own is not sufficient to guarantee anonymity against intelligence agencies – but showed it was also a great aid in combating mass surveillance.
"The good news is that they went for a browser exploit, meaning there's no indication they can break the Tor protocol or do traffic analysis on the Tor network," Dingledine said. "Infecting the laptop, phone, or desktop is still the easiest way to learn about the human behind the keyboard.
"Tor still helps here: you can target individuals with browser exploits, but if you attack too many users, somebody's going to notice. So even if the NSA aims to surveil everyone, everywhere, they have to be a lot more selective about which Tor users they spy on."
But he added: "Just using Tor isn't enough to keep you safe in all cases. Browser exploits, large-scale surveillance, and general user security are all challenging topics for the average internet user. These attacks make it clear that we, the broader internet community, need to keep working on better security for browsers and other internet-facing applications."
The Guardian asked the NSA how it justified attacking a service funded by the US government, how it ensured that its attacks did not interfere with the secure browsing of law-abiding US users such as activists and journalists, and whether the agency was involved in the decision to fund Tor or efforts to "shape" its development.
The agency did not directly address those questions, instead providing a statement.
It read: "In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence purposes, regardless of the technical means used by those targets or the means by which they may attempt to conceal their communications. NSA has unmatched technical capabilities to accomplish its lawful mission.
"As such, it should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract targets' use of technologies to hide their communications. Throughout history, nations have used various methods to protect their secrets, and today terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others use technology to hide their activities. Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that."
• Bruce Schneier is an unpaid member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's board of directors. He has not been involved in any discussions on funding.